Aztec Descendants: ‘Take the Dollar Out of the Day of the Dead’

29 October, 2019

People around the world will celebrate Halloween this Thursday, October 31. Halloween dates to an ancient Celtic tradition in which people believed the dead would return to visit the living.

In the United States, many children are busy preparing for Thursday night. They will shout "trick or treat" as they go from home to home in search of candy or other treats.

Some children will paint their faces to look like skulls, borrowing from an ancient Aztec tradition falling around the same time. It is called Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead spread from Mexico and Central America across the U.S. border. It has become big business in the United States: stores sell Day of the Dead clothing, skulls made of sugar and other products for the celebration.

The Mattel Toy Company recently launched a Day of the Dead Barbie doll, and Nike has created a Day of the Dead athletic shoe. It is named "Cortez" for Hernan Cortes, the soldier who brought down the Aztec Empire.

Most people "think the Day of the Dead is just about sugar skulls and marigolds," said Ixtlixochitl Salinas-White Hawk. She is a member of Mexico's largest indigenous group, the Nahua-Mexika (Aztec). She now lives in Seattle, Washington.

White Hawk does not like the fact that big business and non-indigenous people have taken over the Day of the Dead.

They do not understand "the medicine and spirituality behind it," she said. "They need to take the dollar sign out of it."

Performers in costume attend a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)
Performers in costume attend a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)

Melding of religions

Celebrations honoring the dead date back at least to the Aztecs. They set aside a month at the end of the growing season for events honoring Mictecacihuatl. She is the "Lady of the Dead," who guards the underworld with her husband Miclantecuhtli.

Aztecs made offerings of food, drink and flowers to the dead. Often, these celebrations involved killing innocent people, which angered the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1521, Spain destroyed the Aztec Empire, but had trouble removing the Aztec's spiritual traditions from the native people. Slowly, indigenous spirituality and Catholicism joined together: Catholic churches were built in the place of former Aztec religious buildings, and Aztec celebrations were reborn as Christian holy days.

"They knew that they were not going to be able to make the people not celebrate our ancestors," said White Hawk, "so they passed it on to All Saint's and All Soul's Day."

She notes the Christian holidays that fall on the first two days of November, one honoring dead Catholic Saints and the other remembering the dead.

Today, Day of the Dead is three-day celebration, beginning October 31 and lasting through November 2. These days are set aside to honor generations of ancestors.

"We are not here just on our own," said White Hawk. "We are here because our ancestors lived through hardships and struggles and gave their love for us to be here. So, we celebrate them as a way of thanking them."

Individual traditions are very different from one family to another, but most people set up altars at their home or where family members are buried. They set up pictures of the dead, candles, flowers and some traditional foods on the altar. They believe the spirit of the dead will return for a short time to sit with their descendants.

"There is understanding that our ancestors walk with us, so we sit with them, fix their favorite meal, their favorite drink, share stories. It's about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss," she said.

People watch a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)
People watch a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme)

Widespread celebrations

Today, indigenous communities across the United States organize Day of the Dead parades and street celebrations.

White Hawk is a member of Tloke Nahuake, "together and united," a dance group founded by her father, Juan Salinas. For years, he has traveled across the country to share Aztec culture through dance. The family has taken part in Day of the Dead celebrations in Seattle for years. Sometimes they invite representatives of different communities in Mexico to share the tradition with the public.

"There are stories that go with the dances, which are really prayers," she said. "They are an expression of who we are — not who we are in that moment, but everything our ancestors did to get us to that moment."

Dancers create their own clothing, which include large, colorful hats or head coverings made up of the feathers of parrots and other birds.

"Every feather has its own meaning," said White Hawk. She says they sometimes dance for seven or eight hours.

She understands why non-indigenous people want to celebrate with the imagery of the Day of the Dead.

"I appreciate that everybody is...trying to find their own place," she said. "But I feel very protective of the knowledge and culture that has been entrusted to me."

I'm Susan Shand.

VOA's Cecily Hilleary reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

skull – n. the structure of bones that form the head and face of a person or animal

doll – n. a child's plaything

marigold – n. a plant that produces a colorful flower

indigenous – adj. living, or existing naturally in an area or environment

saint – n. a person who is officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as being holy because of the way he or she lived

altar – n. a table used as the center of a religious service or ceremony

descendant – n. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past

feather – n. any one of the light object growing from a bird's skin; growths that make up the outer covering of a bird's body

appreciate – v. to highly value someone or something